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Jacob Cox in front of a book shelf
Jacob Cox

Having left formal education when he was 12 years old, Jacob taught himself chemistry from books and online materials.

Jacob’s interest in the chemistry of everyday life was apparent from an early age. Now a qualified environmental chemist after overcoming family and health problems, he tells us, in his own words, about his unusual path to a chemistry career.

“My brother told me that if a glass of water and a soda were set next to each other, the water vapour would absorb into the soda. I sat and watched the two and never saw it happen and wondered why!”

When I was nine my mother lost her job leading to our family moving away – one of twelve times in seven years – leaving me only one friend, who later moved to another state. I became depressed due to not having friends and my mother and step-father working all the time, and started to miss school. My heart also started to act up, to the point where I had to wear a portable heart monitor. At school, I started acting up and getting into fights leading to suspension by the faculty. The administration didn't offer me counselling or an alternative, and that, at twelve years old, was the end of my formal education.


About this time, my step-father gave me the general chemistry book by McQuarrie & Rock which I read constantly; I bounced around from family member to family member with only this textbook to give me solace and keep me grounded. I wrote down and memorized the Lewis formula. As I got older (and after moving back with my parents), I acquired more chemistry textbooks and studying them, going online and occasionally asking my step-father helped me to understand the subject. By fifteen I started to see everything as chemistry – I would see steam rising from a small puddle after the rain and would calculate the energy needed.

When I turned eighteen, after constantly studying my chemistry textbooks, I befriended a Professor at Washington & Lee University who helped me even more with my chemistry studies. I started to download lecture notes, watched and listened to open courseware from MIT, Berkeley, Yale, and any others I could find – by this time I had amassed over 300 books of chemistry! They gave me the foundation, structure, credible information, and collective experience of people in the field needed for the understanding of chemistry. I received my High School equivalency (GED) qualification at twenty and went to Virginia West Community College; I did well academically, but due to my isolation as child and teen I found the social setting too much to handle, and I left eighteen months later.

When I was twenty-three my biological father, who was never around during my childhood, died causing me to become depressed and go into a behavioural health centre. I could barely get out of bed, and the depression became so bad that I needed financial assistance. I progressively got better with treatment, and was able to return to work.

My step-father created the Green Science Corporation where we created, monitored, and installed green inventions, like water run-off filtration made from recycled materials. Now I’m the principal research chemist there, working on the extraction of bio-oil from algae, ultrasonic graphene production for hydrogen retention, and other projects.

Working in outreach

For the International Year of Chemistry in 2011 I created the Simple Chemistry Experiments videos, explaining how they worked and how to perform them, and the video series “Lenses, Outer Space, and Ecology" showing how they were all related through chemistry. After the year was over I wanted to perpetuate the interest in chemistry as much as possible with as many platforms as I could. By explaining the properties of chemicals and their uses to the younger generation, we teach understanding of chemicals, respect for them, and excitement for chemistry. Now I am a committee member for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Educational Techniques Group where I created the multisensory learning kit "Chemistry stinks!”, helped on the Molecule Hunt game, and created QR codes for everyday objects, which, when scanned, displayed the chemistry of the object. Most recently I received an edX certificate from MITx in chemistry and two other certificates in chemistry from online courses.

To anybody else who is in my position: always realise you have worth, and the thing that sets you apart is your passion for knowledge and understanding.

Connect with those in the field, never think you know enough, and always ask for help – it shows you are willing to learn. If you aren't able to attend school, make your own: use not only the information in books, online courseware, and from people, but everything around you, chemistry is everywhere. Attend outreach programs and free lectures and be persistent in your scholarly pursuit.

Edited by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of Jacob Cox 
Published March 2014

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